In Syria, democrats chomp at bit

Anticipating a new law that will allow the creation of political opposition parties, some Syrians aren't waiting.

Political life in Syria has long been stagnant, dominated by the ruling Baath Party since the 1960s.

But in June, the Baath Party Congress recommended the establishment of a new political party law that would allow the creation of new nonethnic and nonreligious political parties.

Since then, Samir Nashar, a wealthy businessman from Aleppo, has spent weeks on the road, personally recruiting prominent intellectuals, economists, and businessmen to join the National Free Coalition, a new party that hopes to represent Syria's bourgeoisie.

But in a country where new political parties still remain illegal and gatherings of four or more people may be punishable by jail, Nashar's recruitment drive is proving difficult.

"Because of the security services, people don't know how the government will respond to announcements of political parties," said Nashar. "So even though people like our project, they remain fearful of joining."

While analysts say a new party law could take as long as two years to pass, the mere anticipation of such a law has ignited discussions among activists about what new political parties could look like.

And some of the country's boldest activists are looking to jump start the whole process. Nashar says the need to organize has taken on a sense of urgency as the new law could require a new party to have a membership in the tens of thousands to be recognized.

"In a country like Syria, with no real political life, how can we start a party in the thousands?" asks Nashar. "That is why I am opening the dialogue with friends, social organizations, and economists. We want to build a liberal atmosphere before we have a party so that people get to know each other."

Kamal al-Labwani, one of 10 prominent activists arrested in 2001 and released last year, published his vision for The Liberal Democratic Union a few months ago on the Internet.

Historically, opposition parties in Syria outside the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of nine political parties controlled by the Baath Party, have mostly been communists, socialists, or nationalists. But opposition figures like Nashar and Mr. Labwani say that these days their country is in need of "liberalism" and "capitalism."

Nashar says his Free National Coalition will be the first party since the mid-1950s to represent the interests of the middle class. He has visions of a market economy, a democratic system with a division of power and term limits, an emphasis on the rights for women and minority, and the rights of religious groups to form parties - all anchored under the rule of law.

"For 30 or 40 years, liberal was a negative term for parties," says Louay Hussein, an opposition figure who is also in the midst of forming a political party. "A liberal party meant it was tied to the West and everybody wanted to say we're not Western. Now, to differentiate themselves, many [activists] are starting to use the term liberal."

In early August, Lawbani said in an interview on, a Syrian social and political affairs website, that security services prevented some 200 people from attending a meeting at his house in the mountains just outside of Damascus on the basis that Islamists were displeased with his new project and had threatened to murder him. But such intimidation is not hampering many of these activists.

"We're preparing for the day when the regime falls," Labawani said in the interview. "We're letting them know that we're thinking past their collapse and planning for the future. It's a type of psychological warfare."

Analysts criticize such projects as vague and lacking any real substance.

But, they also say that the fact that people are even thinking about forming political parties remains significant. "The people more and more are starting to feel like it is their right to form parties and that is good," says Hassan Abbas, a researcher at the French Institute for the Middle East in Damascus. "There is still no new party that has offered a real, comprehensive program. But, hopefully, out of all of this something will materialize."

And the new wave may offer opportunities to previously marginalized groups.

Rihab Biytar, a lawyer who works on human rights and Islamic law cases, hopes to become the first woman in Syria to start a new political party. Two months ago, Mrs. Biytar announced the formation of the Free Democratic Coalition, which she calls a "project for a political party based on individual and human rights."

Only one other woman, Wesal Bekdash, has headed a political party, but she inherited that position after the death of her husband.

But, for Syrians, so long as the country remains under martial law, even a law allowing new political parties may not be enough. "There will be no party of importance until the normal people feel they are safe, until people are not afraid of the security apparatus in the country," says Mr. Hussein. "Even if there is a political parties law, there will be no important political parties because the people will not trust the government; they will not trust that you can form a party and you will not be arrested."

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